A Better Feedback Model

Give and Receive Worthwhile Feedback

Giving valuable feedback is difficult. You provide a critique, but feel obligated to wrap it in compliments to soften the blow. In other words, a good-bad-good Shit Sandwich. Despite your efforts, the recipient only hears an attack. It’s an ineffective feedback method that people dread and try to avoid altogether.

Recently, I was involved in leadership training presented by The Roy Group. They taught a refreshing and honest take on feedback that made me rethink my criticisms. It’s comprised of three simple questions:

  1. What went well?
  2. What was tricky?
  3. What would you do differently?

1. What went well?

There are things the recipient did well — call them out. List what resonates with you and be specific. This lets the recipient know what they should continue doing. This list should not be limited to one or two things. Instead, list everything positive related to what you’re providing feedback on.

2. What was tricky?

The power in this step is how unassuming “tricky” is. Tricky isn’t calling attention to some flaw the recipient has, it’s recognizing nothing is perfect and reporting your observations. Be empathetic to the recipient while sharing what’s not working for you.

3. What would you do differently?

Explicitly state how you might improve the situation you’re providing feedback on. Being detailed about what you’d change removes the burden of interpretation from the recipient, and it further encourages empathy by putting yourself in their position. This is an opportunity to turn tricky observations into action points. It can also be a chance to brainstorm new ideas together.

How the model works

The model is broken into two steps, which are both comprised of the three feedback questions:

1. Self-relfection from the recipient

Allow the recipient to have a moment for self-reflection by going through the three feedback questions.

  1. Ask the recipient what went well.
  2. Ask the recipient what was tricky.
  3. Ask the recipient what they would do differently.

This gives them the chance to unload and prepare for your feedback. It also gives participants an opportunity to dive deeper into comments, especially when you both observe the same thing.

2. Feedback from you

Once the recipient has finished self-reflection, run through your observations following the same three questions:

  1. Tell the recipient what they did well.
  2. Tell the recipient what you observed being tricky.
  3. Make suggestions what the recipient could do differently.

Allow the recipient to ask questions and get clarity. Remember, the reason we desire feedback is to get better at our shortcomings, so provide as much insight as possible.

Before running through the model, always ask if the recipient is open to feedback and if the timing is right. If they aren’t open to it, they won’t take anything valuable away from the discussion.

Why the model works

There are several reasons this model works well:

  • It sets up the recipient to successfully accept feedback. They’ll know to expect three questions, and that each is important.
  • It is cooperative. The recipient has given their reflection and you’ve shared your feedback. Both of you have laid all cards out on the table and can discuss openly.
  • You’ll find you don’t need to sugarcoat critical feedback.
  • The list of observations has much more sincerity.
  • It builds empathy between the participants.

When to use the model

Along with the Return on Time Invested (ROTI) Scale, I use this model to get feedback at nearly every interactive meeting I lead. This includes:

  • Teaching classes
  • Peer tutoring
  • Agile meetings
  • Project inceptions
  • Brainstorming sessions
  • Design critiques
  • Talks or speeches

When teaching a class, I spend the last 10 minutes getting student feedback. To start, I gauge the room. I ask the students for a three-point ROTI scale (thumbs down = time spent failed to meet expectations; sideways = time spent met expectations; or up = time spend exceed expectations). Afterwards, I ask what went well, what was tricky, and what they’d do differently. As students provide feedback, I take notes and ask questions for clarity. If a student is confused about a concept, I take the opportunity to explain the concept in another way, and possibly meet with them afterwards to ensure they understand.

The feedback model in brainstorming sessions, project inceptions, and design critiques are very similar to the classroom setting. I use the three-point ROTI scale and survey the participants for feedback. The self-reflection step (which would be done by me in these examples) is often challenging for a group, and can be skipped.

When feedback is requested from me, or in one-on-one meetings, like tutoring, peer reviews, or talks, I run through the entire model in a private room. We take turns. The recipient goes first to evaluate their performance, followed by feedback given by me.

The Roy Group’s feedback model makes feedback straightforward and sincere. The participants each have a chance to take pride in what went well, take action on what was tricky, and explore ideas to improve it for next time. Ditch the shit sandwich and give this a try. I’m certain you’ll find yourself eager to give and receive worthwhile feedback.

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